Is “New Car Smell” Dangerous?
Many drivers love the aroma, but can it make you sick?
Some people absolutely love “new car” smell. You can even buy a “new car smell” air freshener to enjoy the aroma in your old clunker. But what’s in that aroma — and can those chemicals make you sick?
Here’s the answer. The scent comes mostly from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) released into the air from materials inside the car — the upholstery, the polyurethane foam inside the seats, the plastic on the dash, even the carpet under your feet.
“Inside of a new car, there will be literally hundreds of different chemicals, different VOCs, and that’s what causes the smell,” says Scott Steady, product manager for chemical emissions testing and certification, UL Environment.
VOCs in cars can be three times as high as those inside a house, according to one study. And in new vehicles, some VOC concentrations can be up to 10 times higher than in older vehicles — thus the strong aroma. Considering that people spend about 6 to 8 percent of their life in their cars, that can add up to a lot of VOC exposure.
To get specific, here are the chemicals you’re probably inhaling, albeit at low levels:
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- Benzene. It’s one of the 20 most commonly used chemicals in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Exposure at high enough levels can cause eye and skin irritation, headaches and nausea.
- Toluene. It’s commonly used in paints, adhesives, rubber and sometimes tanning leather, according to the CDC. Exposure to very high levels in a short time can cause dizziness, sleepiness and even death.
- Ethylbenzene. This chemical is commonly found in carpet glues, paints and varnishes, according to the CDC. Exposure to high levels can cause throat and eye irritation, burning in the eyes, a tight feeling in the chest and dizziness.
- Xylene. Xyleneis used as a solvent in rubber and leather goods, according to the CDC. High levels of exposure can affect the brain, causing confusion, dizziness and headaches.
- Styrene. It’s used to make rubber and plastics, according to the CDC. Acute exposure can cause irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, as well as dizziness and headaches.
Before you decide to purchase only used cars in the future, take comfort in knowing that at the levels found in a new car, these VOCs would most likely cause watery eyes or an itchy nose, at worst. “You’re likely not breathing in levels of chemicals that will harm you,” Steady says. “It’s mainly an issue of discomfort and irritation,” he adds.
That said, no one knows for sure what health effects — such as cancer — the VOCs might contribute to with long-term exposure. (Remember that your car will emit less VOCs over time.)
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What can you do about new car smell?
If new car smell irritates you or you’re concerned about possible long-term health effects, here are four ways to limit your exposure:
- Buy used. Seals on a new car door block out noise, but they also seal in chemicals, Steady says. If you really want to steer clear of new car smell, buy a car that’s a few years old. It won’t have the smell, and you’ll get more air from outside. “The seals on the doors get leakier as cars get older,” he says.
- Air it out. Use the outdoor air button on the air conditioner instead of recycling the air inside the car. “That’s great unless you’re behind an 18-wheeler pumping out smoke, driving by a factory or sitting in traffic,” Steady says. In that case, switch back temporarily to recirculating the air.
- Check your filter. Regularly replace your cabin air filters according to the manufacturers’ recommended schedule to make sure outside air you’re bringing into the vehicle is filtered.
- Stay off the road in very hot weather. In the first six months or so that you have a new car, try to avoid driving on scorching hot days. “It gets worse in hot weather,” Steady says of the chemical offgassing. If you can’t avoid getting in your new ride on scorching days, roll your windows down as you drive — if you can take the heat.
- Steer clear of air fresheners. If you’re thinking an odor spray or one of those car air fresheners might help, think again. “That’s just more chemicals,” Steady says.
After six months to a year or so, the VOCs should decrease, and your nose will let you know when that’s happened. “The odor is a fairly good indicator,” he says.